David Bowie: 20 Insanely Great Songs Only Hardcore Fans Know – Rolling Stone
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20 Insanely Great David Bowie Songs Only Hardcore Fans Know

A deep dive into the Thin White Duke’s catalog, beyond “Space Oddity” and “Heroes”

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A full length portrait of David Bowie performing on the Dutch TV show TopPop playing the song 'Rebel Rebel' and wearing an eye patch on 7th February 1974 in Hilversum, Netherlands. (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)

David Bowie fans haven’t had the easiest decade. It began with our hero suffering a massive heart attack, canceling the remaining dates of his tour and turning completely away from the spotlight. Then, just when it seemed he was gone forever, the Thin White Duke unleashed a surprise album last year. But he didn’t promote it with a single live performance or interview and he’s since gone quiet yet again. Thankfully, he left behind one of the most impressive catalogs in rock history. Bowie has so many amazing hits that his other songs tend to get overlooked. Here’s a look at 20 hidden gems from his catalog.


“Width of a Circle”

The Man Who Sold the World kicks off with this stellar track about Bowie's spiritual explorations, specifically his brief alliance with Buddhism in 1967. Bowie was still considered a one-hit wonder with "Space Oddity" when the album came out and it generated little interest, but Bowie stuck with the song and on the Ziggy Stardust tour it regularly stretched to 16 minutes. It provided Bowie with the time to change his costume, while Mick Ronson got to rip into his longest guitar solo of the night.


“Something in the Air”

Anyone that went to the movies a lot at the turn of the millennium will probably recognize "Something in the Air." The track from Hours… was used in American Psycho and Memento, arguably the two biggest cult movies of the era. It's a haunting song that might have gotten some radio play had Bowie opted to make it one of the five singles from Hours…. Still, it lives on every time someone in a dorm room fires up American Psycho or Memento. 


“She’s Got Medals”

Bowie had the misfortune of releasing his 1967 self-titled debut LP the exact same day as Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band. It probably wouldn't have made much of an impact anyway, but the fact it had to compete with the most acclaimed album of the decade didn't exactly help. It's an extremely whimsical and British record that will sound dated to most listeners today. The most interesting song is "She's Got Medals," the bizarre tale of a woman that disguises herself as a man to join the army, only to flee as soon as the bombs started to fall. It would not be his last gender-bending song.


“Fantastic Voyage”

There's no such thing as a bad David Bowie record from the 1970s. He was absolutely on fire from the start of that decade to the very end. That said, the weakest of the great records is 1979's Lodger. He'd been working like a maniac for so many years it's easy to understand that he was a little tapped. The opening track, "Fantastic Voyage," was co-written with Brian Eno and addresses the various players in the escalating Cold War. It's the best track on the album, and it features King Crimson's Adrian Belew on mandolin. "Loyalty is valuable," Bowie sings. "But our lives are valuable too." Bowie resurrected the song in 2003 just as a hot war was kicking off between America and Iraq.


“Looking for Satellites”

"Life on Mars" never actually confronts the issue of finding life on an alien planet. Bowie waited to address this issue on 1997's "Looking for Satellites," which was written right around the time the press was abuzz with the possibility of life on the red planet. "Where do we go from here?" Bowie sang on one of the few standout tracks on Earthling. "There's something in the sky/Shining in the light/Spinning and far away." 


“Teenage Wildlife”

When the 1980s began, Bowie started fearing that his time on top might be coming to an end. New Wave artists like Gary Numan were winning over huge fan bases and some saw Bowie as a dinosaur. He lashed out at the imitators on "Teenage Wildlife," perhaps the greatest song on Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). He didn't try hard to hide his feelings on the lyrics. "A broken-nosed mogul are you," he wrote. "One of the new wave boys/Some old thing in brand new drag." He ultimately describes himself as a "group of one" and dismisses the new generation as "same old thing in a brand new drag." Ouch.


“Like a Rocket Man”

Bowie's been writing songs about space since 1969's "Space Oddity." His 2013 comeback album had "Born in a UFO," "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" and "Dancing Out in Space," but he relegated "Like a Rocket Man" to the bonus tracks. That was an odd move since it's clearly superior than many tracks that made the LP. Like many of his space songs, the track is really about drugs. In the song we meet Wendy Cocaine and a twitchy narrator that "never paid her for a gram." In the end he's speeding around like a rocket man. For all we know, this is the great, lost prequel to "Space Oddity." We never did learn how Major Tom got hooked.


“Criminal World”

Let's Dance is Bowie's last blockbuster album, the conclusion of arguably the greatest 14-year run in rock history. The album kicks off with the triple shot of "Modern Love," "China Girl" and "Let's Dance," meaning that many of the fans who bought the album because of the MTV hits probably didn't bother to turn the thing over more than once or twice. They missed out on "Criminal World," a fantastically 1980s tune with killer guitar work from Stevie Ray Vaughan. It's the only track on the LP not written by Bowie — it's by the widely forgotten 1970s band Metro.


“Thursday’s Child”

By October 1999 David Bowie had released so many disappointing albums in a row that not many people sat up and took notice with he came out with Hours…, a rather remarkable return to form. Gone were all attempts to seem cutting edge, and instead he simply focused on assembling 10 great songs. The best track is the very first one, "Thursday's Child." The title was taken from a book that Eartha Kitt published in 1956. The album never rose above Number 47 on the United States Billboard chart. This was the height of Britney Spears, Korn and the Backstreet Boys. Bowie seemed like a fossil of a fossil, though over the next few years he'd re-team with Tony Visconti for two albums that were impossible to ignore.


“Slip Away”

At the turn of the millennium, Bowie decide to make an album that mixed a handful of new songs with re-recordings of his earliest tunes. His songs before Space Oddity never got much of an audience and he always felt they weren't produced properly. He called the album Toy and he basically finished it, though it was ultimately shelved in favor of Heathen. (It leaked on the Internet in 2011.) One of the few tracks to make the leap from Toy to Heathen was "Uncle Floyd," which he re-titled "Slip Away." It's a gut-wrenching tune about the passage of time, built around references to the 1970s children's show Uncle Floyd. It was a nightly highlight on the 2003/'04 Reality Tour.


“New Killer Star”

David Bowie had been working solidly for so many consecutive years when Reality came out in September 2003 that most people were taking him for granted. It was his second record in a little over a year and few people were even paying attention. It was their loss. Reality is a killer album that kicks off with this bombastic track that touches upon New York in the aftermath of 9/11. Bowie lived very near Ground Zero and the tragedy touched him deeply. "See the great white scar," he wrote. "Over Battery Park/Then a flare glides over/But I won't look at that scar."


“Bring Me the Disco King”

"Bring Me the Disco King" had one of the longest gestation periods of any song in Bowie's catalog. He started work on the haunting, reflective track during sessions for 1993's Black Tie White Noise, but he couldn't quite pull it together. He tried again four years later for Earthling, but again it wasn't working. The song finally gelled during the sessions for 2003's Reality when he slowed the whole thing down. It wraps up the entire album and stretches to nearly eight minutes. It was the last new Bowie song anyone heard for ten years, and lines like "stab me in the dark, let me disappear" made it seem like a goodbye.


“Hallo Spaceboy” (Pet Shop Boys remix)

In many ways, the 1990s were David Bowie's lost years. After decades of creating trends, he suddenly seemed behind the times — right as people he inspired, like Trent Reznor, completely took over the airwaves. It also seemed like the harder he tried, the worse he failed, especially when he reunited with former producers Nile Rodgers and Brian Eno. One very notable exception was "Hallo Spaceboy" from 1995's largely dreary Outside. The original has a strong Nine Inch Nails vibe, and the song got even better when the Pet Shop Boys got their hands on it. They made it danceable, and even sprinkled in a bit of "Space Oddity." Not many people were paying attention and the song didn't do very well, but there's a reason it was one of the few 1990s songs he kept in his set list after the turn of the millennium.

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